“Whoever tries to conquer Cuba, will gather the dust of her
blood-soaked soil, if he does not perish in fight”
Antonio Maceo Grajales (1845-1896), renowned leader and Major General of the Liberation Army, was a staunch fighter for Cuba’s independence and is widely considered to be a master military strategist.
He is believed to have been involved in over 800 battles, the majority during the independence struggles of 1868, and was wounded 26 times.
But, what makes a man join such a fearsome war, one which caused him such heartache? He didn’t live to see the end.
All people of unmatched greatness are connected by a common desire, to see their homeland free, free of the yoke of oppression and exploitation of their fellow citizens. And there is no doubt that Antonio Maceo was one of those people.
José Martí would say of him: “We must pay heed to what he says, because Maceo has as much strength in his mind as he does in his arm.”
Today, Cuba is a sovereign and independent country, a reality which it owes to patriots who refused to accept defeat or abandon the struggle. One of these individuals was the Bronze Titan. His mother, Mariana Grajales, inculcated in him a sense of order, while his father Marcos Maceo, taught him how to fight. It was the influence of his parents and the socio-political situation at the time which shaped Antonio, along with his 12 siblings, into individuals of indestructible character.
Of course much more can be said of one of the most important military leaders of the island’s independence wars. There are various historical accounts and anecdotes about the Major General which better reflect his personality than any contemporary eulogy can.
For example, after learning of the pact signed by other military leaders, (the pact of Zanjón), an indignant Antonio Maceo, representing the most radical and revolutionary position among Cubans who fought for independence, undertook a feat that would mark Cuba’s history.
The agreement, signed by several of Cuba’s political and military leaders of the time, was intended to put an end to the 10 Years War (1868-1878). However, it did not include two of the most important objectives of the struggle: Cuban independence and an end to slavery.
In a place known as Mangos de Baraguá, Maceo met with Spanish Lieutenant General Martínez Campos, and flatly refused to sign the pact, which he believed did not provide a solution to the country’s problems or grant its full independence. This act would come to be known as the Protest of Baraguá.
Speaking about the Major General, Fidel Castro noted, “As the 10 year struggle was about to end, that figure emerges, that radical revolutionary spirit and consciousness emerges, embodied at that time by Antonio Maceo.”
Likewise, one of the most outstanding examples of his military skill can be seen in the East-West invasion, during which Maceo, together with General Máximo Gómez (1836-1905), another important independence leader, attempted to mobilize the entire country in the struggle to free Cuba of the yoke of colonial domination.
Renowned Cuban intellectual and Communist Armando Hart, described Maceo not only as a talented military leader, but also a man of honor, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a broad humanist vision, and close ties with the exploited people, of whom he was the most genuine representative in the Mambí Army; a warrior whose conduct was cultivated through word and deed; a man whose enemies were forced to recognize as a gentleman.
Then there is the battle of 1896 in Vuelta Abajo, today the western province of Pinar del Río.
The confrontation began near the San Jacinto Sugar Mill and continued across the mountainous area known as Rubí. Three columns of enemy reinforcements had arrived when the Titan’s scouting party encountered a fourth on the Lechuza trail. Trained and ready to fight, but lacking weapons, Maceo’s troops found themselves in a difficult position.
Noticing that the enemy was advancing with relative ease, Maceo chose six of his aides and left the campsite. At a certain point along the way the seven insurgents sighted the fourth column about 30 or 40 yards away.
Suddenly faced with Spanish troops, Maceo and his six combatants stopped their horses and opened fire. After a few minutes, they decided to quickly retreat via a narrow path, which they soon realized ended at a tall, sturdy fence, blocking their escape route.
The group realized that only the Major General’s horse would be able to jump the fence. Maceo’s comrades begged him to flee, while they held off the enemy. However, the astute warrior used a strategy that left the Spanish utterly confused.
Brave, intelligent individuals like Antonio Maceo always find a solution to difficult situations. Realizing that there was no way out, the group returned along the same path they had come, riding directly toward the enemy, just as they arrived at the entrance to the pathway.
The Spanish cavalry, unsure as to why the Mambises had turned back, and on hearing the cry “Draw your machetes!” thought that there was a squad of troops behind the group. This psychological blow caused the Spanish to hesitate, allowing the Bronze Titan and his aides to escape.
However, the Spanish troops weren’t the only adversaries Maceo faced.
The General understood the implications of accepting “help” from the U.S. to defeat the Spanish.
In a letter to Mambi Colonel Federico Pérez Carbó, dated June 14, 1896, Antonio stated: “I will never expect anything of Spain, she has always neglected us and it would be improper to think otherwise.
“Freedom is won, not requested, with the blade of a machete; to beg for one’s rights is the attitude of cowards incapable of exercising them.
“Nor do I expect anything of the (north) Americans, we must all trust in our efforts; it is better to rise or to fall without help than to incur debts of gratitude with such a powerful neighbor (…)”
His life was story of epic feats all Cubans should know. A life and a man marked by desires for independence and a fearless temperament; but above all, commitment and devotion to seeing a free world in which everyone is equal.